When I read the Bible – like reading anything – I struggle against wandering concentration. For some reason, I develop intense interest in the grass outside the window or the small cobwebs around the light fitting.
That’s bad enough. Possibly it’s disrespectful. Even worse is to actively choose a Bible reading method that sets distraction as the standard and as essential.
This is what I call wandering from the text. It’s when we stop truly listening to what is written, and listen instead to something of our own imagining.
Here are a couple of ways to go wrong in this way.
Theological liberalism is the approach that gives priority to human reason, over authoritative revelation. It often asks what is reasonable or logical, what we might consider possible. It frequently displays great intelligence, I believe, but elevates us and our ideas above God and his word.
Liberalism still looks at the Bible. Yet it wanders from the text.
In reading John’s gospel, for instance, this approach tries to reconstruct what was happening when it was written. John was not written by John, but by the Johannine community – and they must have been facing pressures internal and external which are reflected in the text.
Or Daniel is not a book that tells anything about a real Daniel in a real situation of exile. It is instead a fiction created to explain the current situation of the shadowy author (and his community).
Or Deuteronomy has nothing at all to do with Moses and post-exodus Israel. It is instead about the exile many centuries later, and written as a theological explanation for the situation of defeat and dislocation.
Simple Christian piety can see clearly that liberalism has jumped from the text. But, ironically, can jump even further. While liberalism jumps from text to imaginatively-reconstructed historical setting, pious readings jump from the text directly to us.
This approach takes the text seriously – as personal guide – but not always seriously enough to listen to what it actually says. So, for instance, a pious reader will know Jeremiah 29:11 (about ‘the plans I have for you’), but know nothing of why Jeremiah spoke those words at the time. The verse becomes, instead, a way to help me in unemployment/illness/etc.
Whatever the comforting intent, we’ve jumped from the text. And made ourselves the centre!
What should we do? Slow down, to read, listen, and understand what the text is saying. Listen to the whole, not seek crumbs of information for my own personal use. The benefit: we will hear God’s word better, we will understand the historical situation a little more, and we will be better able to receive the comfort that comes from listening to God.